Student Number: 1320177

Clare Bright, Honors 394 A

Question 3

The debate about what constitutes human nature is one of the most fundamental

questions facing ideologies within human rights movements. Among the main feminist
and LGBTQ theories, the conception of human nature differs on various fronts, from

sexuality and sex roles to relationships between individuals and groups. Within these

theories, there are chiefly similarities between the liberal feminist and liberal gay

theories, and the radical feminist and radical gay theories. There are also significant

differences between the liberal, radical, socialist, separatist, and queer theories. Each

theory has its political advantages and disadvantages, and all are meritorious, but through

careful examination I have found the liberal feminist and liberal gay theory conception of

human nature to be most compelling and politically advantageous.

The liberal feminist conception of human nature follows the traditional liberal

belief in the essentiality of the human capacity for reason, which leads liberals to seek

liberty and justice through equality and individual autonomy (Jaggar 173-4). Liberal

feminists do not make claims about the nature of happiness or fulfillment, unlike other

ideologies such as socialist feminism, but are forced to conclude attainment of certain

socially defined goods and positions for the majority of people is what defines happiness

(Jaggar 174). Sex roles are viewed by liberal feminists through the lens of the extent to

which these roles allow the utilization of the human capacity for reason, finding that

women’s sex roles do not afford them the equal opportunity to reason required by justice

(Jaggar 176-7). Indeed, liberal feminists view sex as a non-essential feature of human

nature (Jaggar 176), which leads to a further understanding of sexual activity as having

nothing intrinsically valuable (Jaggar 179-80).

Liberal feminists’ conception of human nature and the liberty and justice this

conception requires are politically advantageous in the United States because they build

on long established American values. Equality as prescribed by liberal feminists can be

1
achieved through concrete legislative action, including abortion coverage by health

insurers, prohibition of gay conversion therapy, support of safety net programs such as

childcare, housing, and food for the poor, and sexual assault and domestic violence

prevention programs (N.O.W. Legislative Priorities 2014). Compared to other more

radical feminist ideologies, liberal feminism has a further political advantage in that its

conception of human nature does not expect a sexless, marriage-less society (Friedan

116), which are both cherished traditions in American society. A critique from other

feminist ideologies might say a political disadvantage of liberal feminism is that it

depends on a liberal ideology developed by and for men, so patriarchal inequalities are

inherent in it, though I do not find this critique particularly compelling.

As the name socialist feminist suggests, socialist feminism heavily draws its

ideological foundations from traditional Marxian socialist analyses of human nature.

Socialism finds that human nature is determined by the material conditions of an

individual (Kerbo 101) and that sex roles took shape as a result of the changes

technological development caused on culture and family (Radical Women Manifesto 4).

It seems socialist feminists see the problem of sex roles as being the disparity between

the prestige and thus money afforded to the work associated with each sex (Radical

Women Manifesto 5). Socialist feminists see the patriarchal nuclear family as an artificial

capitalist institution with the purpose of increasing production (Radical Women

Manifesto 9), and the sex roles enforced by household labor as structurally constructed,

not as part of human nature (Davis 229).

In an American society rooted in liberalism and capitalism, the resultant social

critique from the socialist conception of human nature puts socialist feminism at a

2
political disadvantage. Americans hold strong personal connections to their families,

which are largely traditional nuclear families, so socialist feminists face a severe political

disadvantage to overcome. However, socialist feminists benefit from the connection to

race consciousness through labor issues, allowing a political advantage of large alliances

that cross sex, class, and race lines (Radical Women Manifesto 12).

Radical feminists are less consistent in their analysis of human nature. Radical

feminism views sex roles as arbitrary (Kreps 236), arguing for a society devoid of sexual

division. Humans as viewed by radical feminists are inherently androgynous and

polysexual, warped to the sex binary and heterosexuality by the patriarchy (Bright lecture

2/18). This view of human nature results in a radical feminist ideal of a completely

androgynous, non-hierarchical society, which when contrasted with present conceptions

of sex is a politically disadvantageous goal. However, radical feminists are also realistic

in their understanding that humans are all affected by social structures, and that perhaps

happiness could not exist without these structures (Frye, Oppression 10).

The separatist feminist view of human nature can be described as one focused on

power and access (Frye, On Separatism and Power 103). To separatist feminists, sexual

relations are of a parasitic nature, with men parasitizing women (Frye, On Separatism and

Power 98). Like radical feminists, separatist feminists hold that the personal is political,

advocating for women to become completely woman-identified in order to fight against

the patriarchy (Levy 32). This view of human nature seems to be a political disadvantage

because it seeks to create an entirely separate society for women, requiring the end of

mixed sex relationships, the establishment of women-only institutions, and in order to

become widespread, for women to adhere to only homosexual sexual relations. On the

3
small scale, separatist feminist is viable, but as a political ideology it falters.

Similar to the liberal feminists, assimilationist/reformist/liberal (A/R/L) gay

theorists draw heavily from traditional liberal conceptions of human nature. A/R/L gay

theorists see homosexuality as natural (Cruikshank 51), thus gay people have the right to

privacy when having consensual sex with other adults (Cruikshank 52). A/R/L gay

theorists also tend to posit that sexuality is a biological trait that makes up the core of

who a person is, which requires full human equality and integration (Gilreath 89). As

with liberal feminists, A/R/L gay theory has the political advantage of working in an

American system built on liberal ideas, allowing progress to be made easier through non-

discrimination litigation, election of gay politicians and allies, and the use of identity

politics to form a gay voting bloc (Rayside). Other gay groups criticize the importance

A/R/L theories place on biological determinism and its propensity for accepting the

patriarchal system.

Radical and nationalist gay theorists view sexuality similarly to how radical

feminists view gender. Radical gay theorists believe humans are naturally sexually

androgynous, and thus reject the constructed differences between masculinity and

femininity and the division between heterosexuality and homosexuality (Engel 42).

Further explorations of sexuality by radical gay theorists find sexuality to be naturally

fluid, and it is only the hierarchy imposed by patriarchal capitalism, that constructs the

concept of sexual orientation (D’Emilio 57). Gay liberation theory concludes that if

humans are naturally sexually androgynous, sex roles should be rejected as unnatural

(Engel 42).

Radical and nationalist gay theorists developed the concept of coming out being a

4
public, political act. By making the personal political, the radical and nationalist gay

theorists have a political advantage in changing how gays define themselves. Gay people

use coming out as a tool to wrestle control of what it means to be gay, and then create a

personal tie to the success of gay liberation (Engel 43). However, by promoting gay

pride, radical and nationalist gay theory reinforces the idea that there is an inherent

difference between gay people and non-gay people, which is counterproductive from the

ideal of a sexually androgynous society. Similar to radical feminism, radical gay theory

places the blame of inequality on the heterosexual patriarchy (Wittman 70).

Queer theory stands in opposition to radical gay theory, because it rejects the

notion of sexuality as a primary characteristic of humans (Duggan 5), yet agrees with the

idea of sexual fluidity (Duggan 7). Indeed, queer theory dismisses identities connected to

human behavior and desire altogether as socially constructed (Brown 293). Queer

theorists further reject the nuclear family as not natural, but sexually oppressive (Cohen

208). Politically, the problem with queer theory is that it often becomes an argument of

straight versus non-straight. Its potential as a political ideology is limited by the inherent

non-cohesiveness queer theory’s conception of human nature and rejection of identities

fosters. If there is a political advantage to be found, it is that queer theory provides a

forum for opposition to dominant norms (Cohen 201), which could lead to coalition

politics.

While each conception of human nature has its merits, I find the liberal feminist

and A/R/L gay theory conceptions of human nature to be most compelling. The socialist

feminist conception of human nature places the blame of sexual difference on capitalism,

yet seems to acknowledge sex roles are natural, only taking issue with the differing

5
valuation of these roles. This is not compelling because sexual difference existed and still

exists outside of capitalist systems, and yet it still seems to accept unequal opportunity

for the sexes. The radical feminist view of sex roles as arbitrary is sound, but the

conception of humans as naturally androgynous and polysexual but oppressed into

binaries by the patriarchy seems in contention with history. As many of the ideologies

acknowledge, at a time in history there were matriarchies, yet humans were not

androgynous or polysexual then either. Separatist feminism misses the mark on human

nature because in its analysis of male parasitism on women, it ignores gay men who are

not so parasitic on women. Further, in advocating for lesbianism as a way to become

woman-identified, separatist feminists show a belief in sexuality as something one can

choose, which is not compelling at all.

Like the radical feminist ideology, the radical gay conception of natural sexual

androgyny seems at odds with history. Further, radical gay theory seems to posit

polysexuality as natural, which would imply homosexuality along with heterosexuality is

unnatural. Any claim that any particular sexuality is unnatural is not compelling to me.

The queer conception of human nature as being devoid of natural identities is sound at

first, but when one tries to define queer, the closest one can get is “non-straight”, which is

itself an identity. The queer theory view that the issue of biological determinism is

essentially irrelevant is compelling, however. Perhaps what prevents queer theory’s

conception of human nature from compelling me is that it seeks to deconstruct the

concept of the other, only to create a new other in the former oppressor.

Why the liberal conception of human nature, one based on the human capacity for

reason, is most compelling to me is that its implications do not seek to separate or

6
delegitimize people. Unlike feminist separatism, the liberal pursuit of equality for the

sake of giving each person an opportunity to exercise his or her reason does not seek to

create a separate space for the oppressed. Unlike queer theory, the liberal conception of

sexuality does not create an enemy in a group of people, nor does it tell an identity that it

is not real. Unlike radical theory, the liberal conception of sex roles and sexual relations

as a private, personal matter does not require a specific group to develop a culture,

exhibit specific behaviors, or dismiss heterosexuality, which is a valid identity as well.

The liberal conception of human nature produces a goal of equality. Perhaps the

reason this conception is so compelling to me is because I see concrete progress being

made toward equality. Baumgarner and Richards’ Manifesta Epilogue does not seem so

far fetched to me, and took a few paragraphs before I realized it was painting the future,

not the present. Today, one would be hard pressed to find a politically active American

who cannot conceive of having a woman President. Same-sex marriage is now legal in a

large number of states. Unconventional families and hyphenated last names are not

uncommon. Female hero figures on television are common. In schools, more and more

females are becoming interested in science, technology, engineering, and math, sex

education begins in elementary school, male cheerleaders are not unheard of, and same-

sex couples at proms are as accepted as interracial couples. While this is not true in all

communities, the fact that it is true in some is compelling enough to instill faith in liberal

feminist and gay theory.

Perhaps the biggest political advantage liberal theory has is it is less constricted

by ideology. Where it lacks in areas like speed and being all-encompassing, it can pick up

advantages other theories have. Liberals can pick up on the advantage socialist feminism

7
has in creating alliances by working for equality for a wider range of causes. Where

radical feminism draws strength from its opposition to sex roles, liberals’ quest for

equality also seeks equal opportunity to fill whichever role one pleases. Liberal gay

theorists particularly picked up the radical strategy of public coming out, which gave the

liberal movement the same strength in visibility the radical movement had. In coming out

as a public political act, the liberal movement finds a mainstream that includes women’s

and gay issues.

8